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Review

Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, and Sin in Postwar Vancouver

By Becki Ross

November 4, 2013

Review By Lara Campbell

Feather boas and glamorous stage shows, breast implants and stripper poles: these images of postwar Vancouver nightlife in Burlesque West reflect the contradictory cultural status of striptease. Although striptease was defined by various experts as sexually deviant, Becki Ross convincingly argues that it was at the same time a popular and profitable part of Vancouver’s postwar economy. Dancers lived with and negotiated this contradiction. As female-dominated work that was fairly lucrative, striptease offered women a degree of independence, control, and sexual empowerment. Yet dancers also worked in an environment that was structured by patriarchal and racist assumptions about women’s sexuality, and they suffered from occupational hazards that were hard on their bodies and lives. 

Becki Ross places erotic dancing soundly in the category of work, carefully showing how dancers, like other female workers in the postwar era, had to negotiate gender inequality, assumptions of heteronormativity, and sexual harassment. Other historians and sociologists have analyzed striptease as labour, but Ross pushes further to explore the association of striptease with cultural constructions of race, ethnicity, and gender; the relationship of dancers with male clients and club owners; and the connections between dancers and the second-wave women’s movement. Her book is centred around interviews with retired dancers, club owners, musicians, and other workers in the industry, and Ross deeply respects their experiences and perceptions. Supplementing oral histories with newspapers, magazines, images, and booking diaries, Ross paints a complex and rich historical snapshot of Vancouver nightlife and argues that the industry was fundamentally important to the city’s burgeoning economy. 

Neither Ross nor the dancers she interviewed understand the industry in simplistic terms, and the result is a book that portrays stripping as having a messy and complicated relationship with women’s sexuality. For example, Ross critiques anti-pornography feminism, arguing that it contributes to a simplistic and unfair perception of dancers as dupes of patriarchy or victims of male oppression. Many of the dancers defined themselves as feminist: all of them claimed that dancing was empowering (132). Feminist historians and theorists need to take these claims seriously and explore the historical failures of both middle-class and working-class feminists who did not make alliances with erotic dancers, many of whom, Ross points out, were involved in activist collectives, and all of whom challenged restrictive definitions of female sexuality on a regular basis. 

Attentiveness to race and ethnicity allows Ross to explore how ideas about race shaped the geography and ownership of nightclubs, and the experiences of both dancers and spectators. The spatial divide of Vancouver, with East End clubs that were racially diverse, stigmatized, and heavily policed, and West End clubs that were frequented by “higher-class” Anglo dancers and clientele, adds to the story of racism and segregation in Vancouver’s urban history. Ross shows how black dancers, for example, had to embody racist stereotypes of primitive sexuality, yet did so with awareness, forethought, and remarkable humour (12426). Her willingness to take seriously the stories of “men behind the marquee” allows her to place their stories within Canadian labour history, showing how club ownership was an “occupational enclave” for non-Anglo men who were discriminated against in the labour market and who struggled with stereotypes that portrayed them as pimps or mobsters. 

Interviews with male owners, in particular, open future avenues of research in the history of masculinity. It would be interesting to see a historical study of men who frequented the clubs and to explore their complex perceptions of the women they viewed onstage. A short but intriguing section on touring in northern and small resource towns suggests that rural and urban experiences differed, and further research of this divide would contribute to a history of gender and sexuality in rural British Columbia. Ross is not entirely convinced that the current revival of neo-burlesque and female-friendly striptease classes will lead to a larger cultural shift, one that destigmatizes erotic dancing and sex work in general. Women who make a living from erotic dancing do so in an environment that has been deprofessionalized since the 1970s, particularly with the advent of small stages in hotel bars, graphic nudity, and the decline of live music and elaborately choreographed shows. Whether the industry itself will survive in the era of cheap internet pornography remains the next chapter in the fascinating history of striptease.

Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, and Sin in Postwar Vancouver
By Becki L. Ross
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2009, $29.95 paper